Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Alison chronicles how the definition of "accountability" has changed since the Cons' own actions started to come under the microscope, while Paul Wells writes about the three different interests at play in the Cons' scandal. And Tonda MacCharles explores how the Senate bribery scandal developed - though her willingness to take Con talking points at face value seems questionable given how consistently they've crumbled when compared to actual evidence, particularly when the likes of Chantal Hebert and Don Martin are eviscerating the Cons' ever-more-farcical spin.

- Meanwhile, Don Lenihan discusses why gratuitous secrecy does nothing but damage to the legitimacy of political decisions:
There’s an old saying that information is power. If I have it and you don’t, I’ve got a leg up on you, right? Well, actually, no. As politicians and bureaucrats are learning—often the hard way—the reverse is at least as likely to be true: real power calls for openness and transparency, not secrecy.

The Senate scandal leaps to mind. Everyone now agrees that if the PMO had just let the Senate enquiry take its course, it would all be behind them.

But my topic here is on how ministers conduct regular business. At the moment, secrecy reigns, even though it often benefits no one—least of all, ministers.
A minister that learns to trust these processes, rather than trying to manage them, will find that his/her decisions get far more traction. Making them even more open and transparent will only further strengthen and legitimate the results.

So there is a lesson here for all governments: when strategy is allowed to trump process—say, by hiding critical information from those with a genuine stake in the issue—the risk of failure rises exponentially. Secrecy, in other words, is a shoddy way to make policy.
- Linda McQuaig comments on Justin Trudeau's unwillingness to distinguish between genuine debate and personal attacks. And Dan Tan highlights the enormous gap between Trudeau's recent attempt to claim Layton's legacy, and his effort at the time to deny Layton's principled politics any place on the federal scene.

- Althia Raj reports on Michael Chong's bill to limit the authority of party leaders, while Andrew Coyne rushes to support the proposal. But I'd think it's important to distinguish between correcting the unintended effects of past legislation (particularly the power held by party leaders to control nomination processes) and imposing new requirements which might produce similarly undesirable outcomes - which looks like a real risk in making caucus management and leadership reviews a matter of legislation.

- Finally, David McGrane discusses the place of marketing in Canada's political system - though his view of how a marketing culture can better target political appeals seems to describe some future ideal state rather than the current culture of ad saturation, robocalls and constant mailouts.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Musical interlude

Serge Devant & Jan Johnston - Transparent

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Stuart Trew fleshes out the Cons' new(-ly explicit) Corporate Cronies Action Plan - and it goes even further in entrenching corporate control over policy than one might have expected at first glance:
- The makeup of the advisory panel that consulted with Trade Minister Fast skews the new Action Plan in favour energy- and water-intensive agricultural export sectors, multinational business represented by the CCCE, and the energy sector. There was no worker representation on the advisory committee. And the involvement of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business is arguably more of a cover for Harper than a sign that Canada's trade policy is designed to help small- and medium-sized companies the most. The Action Plan says SMEs are the "backbone" of the Canadian economy and yet only 41,000 of 1.09 million companies are engaged in external trade. That is a very domestically oriented backbone.

- This corporate advisory committee will become, under the Action Plan, a permanent "advisory council" that "will include two standing subcommittees, one on emerging markets and the other on established markets. Comprising business and industry leaders, experts in international business and key representatives from the SME community, the subcommittees will bring together the voices of all businesses, big and small. They will provide strategic insight, advice and real-world perspectives on how to keep the market access plans relevant to Canadian business needs." Will the meetings be private, like Minister Flaherty's corporate summer retreats in Wakefield? The advisory council meetings were (see below).

- The government-business merger will work both ways. The Harper government will place "embedded Government of Canada personnel within key industry associations in order to gain better insight into sectoral needs and ensure these are reflected in services provided." Why spend money to hire a lobbyist in Ottawa when you can have the government spending the public's money to attending your meetings?
- Meanwhile, CBC reports that the Cons are breaking yet another promise to regulate oil-sector greenhouse gas emissions. And the most they've learned after constantly scrapping their promised timelines is not to bother offering any more commitments.

- David Climenhaga writes that Alison Redford's PCs are attacking precisely the voters who allowed them to hold onto power by imposing draconian wage freezes on public-sector workers. But I'm not sure it's fair to be surprised that an anti-social party is imposing anti-social policy - and indeed the more important lesson may be one about the dangers of settling for a "lesser of the evils" government which will gleefully turn against workers when it sees an opportunity to do so.

- The Star again laments Canada's utter failure to live up to its 1989 commitment to end child poverty, while Carol Goar similarly criticizes the right's attacks on unemployment benefits. And Tim Harford recognizes the case for a guaranteed annual income - which would go a long way toward ending poverty in general.

- Finally, Keith Reynolds discusses what happens when P3s and offshore tax avoidance intersect - with a B.C. hospital serving as a clear example:
Partnerships BC considers the taxes paid by the private P3 partner when it is deciding whether or not to choose the public-private partnership method of project development. Partnerships BC claims these private sector taxes as an advantage of P3s, but what happens if the project is moved to a tax haven and taxes paid decline dramatically?
So how is B.C. reacting to this? What are they doing about the possibility the tax revenues they projected from P3s are disappearing into tax havens like Luxembourg? As it turns out, absolutely nothing. An earlier blog post found the Ministry of Finance in response to a Freedom of Information request asking about the impact of tax havens and P3s said "although a thorough search was conducted, no responsive records were located. Your file is now closed."

Partnerships BC provided 75 pages of material in response to the same request. None of it dealt with the tax impact to government if a project moved to a tax haven.

Now one more B.C. public-private partnership has seen its ownership move to Luxembourg. What is the cost to taxpayers? Nobody knows and the results from FOI requests suggest the government isn't looking.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

New column day

Here, on how this week's federal by-elections seem to confirm that another minority Parliament is a real possibility in 2015 - even as the main parties all rule out any discussion of what would happen under that scenario.

For further reading...
- I make reference in the column to John Ivison's rough calculations as to how a 2015 seat count might look. But his greater thesis seems to utterly miss the point that if the Cons finish with just a few more seats than each of the NDP and Libs (and far less than the two combined), they'll be scrambling to cut a deal rather than celebrating.
- Meanwhile, Alice points out that the Libs aren't exactly making it easy to find common ground with the NDP. But I'd think there's room for all parties - and particularly those who want to claim to do politics differently than the Cons - to talk honestly about what their priorities will be following the 2015 election if nobody holds majority power.
- Finally, Murray Mandryk's analysis of the by-elections is also worth a read.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- The Economist takes a look at the effect of international trade agreements - and confirms the long-held concern that the erosion and non-enforcement of labour standards consistently follows the signing of government suicide pacts:
Some results are rather unsurprising. Countries with better civil liberties tend to have higher labour standards. Countries in the OECD, which are richer, do better than those outside (only one OECD member, Turkey, has a score less than 15). But other results in the paper are alarming. During the 1980s and 1990s, the labour-rights index fell precipitously (see the blue line below). The authors reckon this is down to competition for foreign direct investment.
(T)here is evidence of between-country competition. If the labour standards across all other countries decline, those of the excepted country also tend to fall. The regressions also show that membership in the World Trade Organisation, a multilateral institution which aims to promote trade, leads to a lower labour-rights index.

But the race to the bottom operates more subtly than most people suppose. The regressions suggest that while countries do compete with each other by instituting laws that are unfriendly to workers, such competition is not that pronounced. The real problem is that countries compete by enforcing labour laws less vigorously than they might—leading to increases in violations of labour rights prescribed in local laws. Competition between countries to attract investment is less in rules than in their practical application.
- Meanwhile, Jim Stanford makes the case for public sector workers' right to strike:
The attack on public sector labour rights is usually justified by the claim that unions have soaked taxpayers through their irresistible demands. This claim is not supported. In practice, public sector bargaining tends to follow economy-wide trends, but with a lag. Public sector wages were much lower before public sector unionization took off in the 1970s. Wages caught up in the 1980s, then fell behind again during the austere 1990s. The public sector did better in the mid-2000s. But more recently, bargaining has clearly responded to tough times: for four years running, public sector settlements have lagged well behind private sector deals, and behind the general growth of earnings in the overall economy.

Average earnings in the public sector are five to 10 per cent higher than economy averages (depending on how they are measured) — but education and credentials are significantly higher, too. Comparing similar occupations and credentials, it’s largely a wash. Women make more in the public sector than in the private sector, but men make less. The whole wage scale is compressed (with a higher bottom and a lower top). But overall public sector compensation is not out of whack — and powerful economic and political pressures tend to keep it that way.

Governments are the only employer with the power to “solve” their labour relations problems by simply dictating a settlement. The potential for misuse of this confluence of fiscal interest and political power is enormous. Most private sector employers would love to outlaw strikes and dictate wage outcomes, but they can’t — and for good reason. Where public employees provide a genuinely essential service (like fire, police, and some health services), there’s no debate: in place of strikes or lockouts, a neutral arbitration system should replicate collective bargaining outcomes without work stoppage. But other public sector workers must have the same rights as anyone else in our society to organize themselves and promote their interests, up to and including withdrawing their labour if that’s necessary to get a deal.
- Michael Harris argues that if Stephen Harper wants to plead innocence his party's Senate bribery scandal, it's long past time for him to call a public inquiry and stop stonewalling against the disclosure of the documentation his office has consistently concealed - while Alison makes note of what's still missing from the investigative record. And Chris Selley highlights Harper's selective outrage at the misuse of public and donor dollars.

- Project Money reports on the potential for doctors to work toward better health outcomes by prescribing adequate income for patients in need. And Global interviews Ryan Meili about the regulatory mechanisms provinces can use to keep prescription drugs affordable.

- Finally, Andy Rowell points out the absurdity of exploiting parts of the tar sands which require more energy to be produced than they actually generate after extraction takes place.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- John Ibbitson reports that the Cons' obvious priorities have finally been made explicit: as far as they're concerned, the sole purpose of international diplomacy is to serve the corporate sector. And Ian Smillie documents how the Cons hijacked Canada's foreign aid program (while signalling that the same path is likely to be followed by the Cons' Australian Liberal allies).

- Meanwhile, CBC uncovers a offshore tax avoidance scheme perpetrated by one of the Cons' hand-picked tax advisers (and chair of the Royal Canadian Mint).

- Rhys Kesselman highlights the fact that contrary to the spin of the corporate sector, a more secure CPP will actually prove a huge boost for younger workers. And the OECD points out why Canada's retirement savings system is in desperate need of improvement:
(A)s (seniors') poverty rates were falling in many OECD countries between 2007 and 2010, in Canada they rose about two percentage points.

As well, the report notes that public (government) transfers to seniors in Canada account for less than 39 per cent of the gross income of Canadian seniors, compared with the OECD average of 59 per cent, meaning more Canadians depend on workplace pensions to bridge the gap.

Meanwhile, public spending on pensions in Canada represents 4.5 per cent of the country's economic output, compared with and OECD average of 7.8 per cent.

Canadian seniors depend on income from private pensions and other capital for about 42 per cent of their total.

"As private pensions are mainly concentrated among workers with higher earnings, the growing importance of private provision in the next decades may lead to higher income inequality among the elderly," the report warns.

"Those facing job insecurity and interrupted careers are also more exposed to the risk of poverty because of the lower amounts they can devote to retirement savings."
- Martin Regg Cohn takes a look at Ontario's economy after a decade of corporate tax slashing - and finds that as usual, the only effect of cutting taxes at the top has been to leave less for everybody else:
Rather than closing a productivity gap with our American competition, Ontario is lagging further behind.

Corporate taxes have been cut to record low levels, yet our companies are sitting on unprecedented stashes of so-called “lazy cash.”

Instead of displaying entrepreneurial zeal to boost exports, our business leaders evince timidity by failing to invest in needed equipment, R&D, software, patents and other productivity tools.
Despite the Liberals transforming the tax system into “one of the most business-friendly” in the industrialized world, “businesses have not fully taken advantage of the many incentives that have been created to promote growth.”

Liberals like to claim that Ontario leads in attracting foreign investment, but that boast camouflages the lack of homegrown investment by our domestic businesses. Despite generous tax incentives, spending on machinery and equipment has declined in the past five years (on a per-worker basis, which hurts our productivity). Investment in information technology has nosed up, but at roughly half the American rate. During all this time, Canadian companies have bolstered their cash reserves.
- Finally, Duncan Cameron asks whether the Senate can serve any useful purpose within Canada's system of government. But while he's right to reject the options normally mooted to reform the upper chamber, I'm not sure the possibility that appointment by lot would be an improvement on the status quo (and all other proposed reforms short of abolition) reflects a defence of the Senate so much as the ultimate argument to get rid of it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Nested cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Richard Seymour comments on more and more draconian anti-protest laws which are being applied to attack public activism:
To understand why this is happening, it is necessary to grasp the relationship between neoliberal austerity and popular democracy.

In a previous era, when neoliberal austerity was first being prepared in tandem with a racist, authoritarian crackdown, Greek political sociologist Nicos Poulantzas spoke of the "redeployment of legal-police networks" as a constitutive element in a new "authoritarian statism". In this regime, formal parliamentary apparatuses would be retained even while substantive democracy was eroded. Stuart Hall, writing a few years later, remarked of Thatcherite neoliberalism that "under this regime, the market is to be free; the people are to be disciplined".

Why this authoritarianism? Why, in freeing "the market", was it necessary to discipline the people? If the focus is limited to austerity – neoliberalism in its "shock doctrine" form – then the problem can be interpreted simply as one of crisis management. The state assumes measures for enhanced popular control at just the moment when it is trying to manage an unpopular reorganisation of public services, welfare and capital-labour relations. But in fact, this is merely a conjunctural form of a wider problem.
Just as the definition of crime is inherently ideological, so the decision as to what constitutes an "official" protest or an "extremist" outrage is in part ideological and normative, deriving from the legal and political culture of policing in a given state and bureaucratic categories deployed by local and national forces. Necessarily, then, this is an inherently politicised form of policing. It is not merely demonstrative, showing by example what styles of protest are tolerated (ineffectual ones, largely), but practical in the sense that it drastically foreshortens democratic possibilities.

The reorganisation of states today in an authoritarian direction is part of a longer-term project to contain democracy while retaining a minimum of democratic legitimacy. That is what the anti-protest laws are about.
- Meanwhile, Robyn Benson contrasts the Cons' constant efforts to dismiss environmentalists, First Nations and other concerned citizen groups as "special interests" against their eagerness to serve as the puppets of the oil industry at every turn. And George Monbiot exposes the Cons' UK cousins as using public money to lobby for the destruction of sustainable oceans and fisheries.

- Alice Funke, Paul Wells and Chantal Hebert each weigh in on last night's by-elections - which saw the NDP hold onto its 2011 position in Toronto Centre and Bourassa, but fall short of adding substantially to its previous high-water mark.

- Finally, Brent Rathgeber and David Sachs both recognize Stephen Harper's direct responsibility for the bribery scandal engineered by his chief of staff and his Senate cronies. And Andrew Coyne notes that Harper's latest spin doesn't stand up to even a sliver of reality:
[Harper's story] requires nothing more than that you believe that, even after the revelation of Wright’s treachery, the prime minister was kept in the dark about the full extent of the operation, and of the others’ role in it; that, knowing the truth of their own involvement, they nevertheless allowed the prime minister to tell Parliament, falsely and repeatedly, that Wright acted alone; and that, when at length the full dimensions of the cover-up were uncovered, the prime minister, though he had at last been persuaded to accept Wright’s resignation, demanded no similar price be paid by the others who had betrayed him, such as Gerstein.

It asks us to believe a prime minister famous for his controlling ways took almost no interest in what his subordinates were up to; that finding his almost childlike trust betrayed, he reacted with Christ-like forgiveness; and that, notwithstanding his own utter blamelessness, he has refused for months to answer the simplest questions about what he knew, admitting only as much as the belated emergence of facts demands.

It requires that we accept that a prime minister who says he would never have agreed to any piece of the plot — the payoff, the audit tampering, the Senate whitewash — somehow found himself surrounded by people who, on the evidence, tackled the lot without hesitation.

Where could they have got the idea that this was acceptable? How could he have been so wrong about them? Why, it’s almost unbelievable.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Monday Morning 'Rider Blogging

Far too often throughout the latter half of the 2013 season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders' early-game offensive struggles partially masked their greatest strengths.

Particularly after Alex Hall arrived in a mid-season trade, the 'Riders were built ideally to hold leads. The defence boasted enough elite pass-rushers to pressure quarterbacks while leaving plenty of extra coverage to drop into the secondary; the offence could churn up yardage on the ground as well as any, while also enjoying a high enough comfort level to try the occasional deep ball rather than playing too conservatively.

But if the 'Riders didn't get to deploy those weapons as often as they'd have liked earlier in the season, they showed exactly what they could do in its final two weeks - and particular in yesterday's Grey Cup victory over Hamilton.

The 'Riders' 24-point offensive outburst in the second quarter effectively forced the Tiger-Cats to abandon their running game and rely on repeated deep passes into tight coverage. Kory Sheets managed to pile up a few records and awards in the season's most important game - which should easily make up for any he lost to injury during the regular season. And just when it looked like the Ticats might make the ending too close for comfort, the combination of two deep passes to Weston Dressler and a Ticat turnover put the game well out of reach.

Of course, the CFL offseason will mean plenty of player movement - particularly with an expansion draft moving away from the best current teams in the league. But the Roughriders were able to play their best possible type of game when it mattered most - and an entire province is now getting to celebrate as a result.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Paul Wells and Dan Lett offer roundups of today's federal by-elections, while Chantal Hebert offers some advice to the candidates (whether or not they're elected to Parliament today). And Murray Dobbin explains why there's only one true progressive choice in Toronto Centre in particular:
McQuaig's Liberal opponent in the riding is Chrystia Freeland, a parachute candidate who is being touted as a progressive with deep concerns about inequality. Trudeau has tried to boost her profile by stating that he wants her in his "inner circle."

The problem is that there is nothing to suggest that the Liberal Party or their star candidate give a damn about inequality let alone have any intention of doing anything about it. Trudeau's hero is Paul Martin, who as finance minister did more than any other politician in Canada to undermine equality and reduce the power of ordinary workers. His "labour flexibility" policies devastated Canadian working people and large swaths of the middle class. He slashed Unemployment Insurance, ended the Canada Assistance Plan (the federal funding program that forced provinces to have half-decent social assistance programs), deliberately kept unemployment at high levels through the 1990s to weaken labour and generally abandoned policies that protected employees. He gave huge tax cuts to the wealthy, exacerbating inequality, and cancelled Canada's social housing program. Even Brian Mulroney paled in comparison in his policies.

Neither Justin Trudeau nor Chrystia Freeland have said anything about reversing these socially destructive policies. Yet these are precisely the policies that have created much of the inequality Freeland talks about.

McQuaig, on the other hand, has consistently made the case that growing inequality is the direct result of an ideology that has dominated government policy and media discourse since the 1980s. McQuaig actually talks about solutions -- advocating for strengthened social supports, rebuilding public programs, empowering labour and creating a more progressive tax system. The NDP has historically stood for these things, too, and if McQuaig wins she will be a strong voice to continue with these policies.
 - Of course, by-elections also offer an opportunity to field-test ideas which haven't yet been used in general elections - making the Libs' use of "shame" tactics in Toronto Centre something worth watching. And Tim Harper discusses how the Broadbent Institute looks to be adopting some of the more successful strategies of the Centre for American Progress.

- Michael Harris discusses why Stephen Harper should be as good as gone if last week's revelations about the Senate bribery scandal are true. And Dan Leger comments on the Cons' Senate corruption and cover-up as an example of central command gone awry.

- Daniel Tencer reports on how the Libs and Cons alike have handed massive tax giveaways to the corporate sector and the rich - while nickel-and-diming working Canadians to partially make up for the shortfall.

- Finally, Barrie McKenna notes that Canada should be learning lessons from the misuse of NAFTA's arbitral mechanisms to attack all kinds of government policies through a perpetually-expanding definition of "investment". And Ian Welsh writes that free trade reflects elites selling out their own populations - though it's probably fair to say that many of the corporatist advocates pushing for free trade have built a far stronger sense of kinship with fellow mercenaries than with anybody originating from the same place:
Internally, free trade is used to create betrayals.  Trade deals do not allow environmental protections, do not allow high wages, do not allow workers to be treated well, or you aren’t competitive and the usual remedies, like tariffs and subsidies are not allowed by those same trade deal.  This allows oligarchs in every country involved in the deal to put downward pressure on wages, regulations, benefits and even standards of humane treatment, in the name of “competitiveness.”

A wise society, including a global society, takes certain types of behavior “off the table”, by just forbidding them. Absent that, they make it so that those who do such things are not rewarded.  Fail to do either of these things, and you find yourself in a race to the bottom.

Note, again, that this is in oligarchs best interest EVEN if their country loses.  Greek oligarchs, post-crash, are doing just fine.  African potentates walk away with multi-million dollar bank accounts even as their own citizens starve to death.  Business owners want to push down wages and costs, no matter where they are.  This devastates countries, and even the citizenry of many of the winning countries (like the US), but it benefits of the few a great deal in relative terms.  They’d be better off, as a class, in absolute terms if they took this behaviour off the table, but they wouldn’t be as rich relative to everyone else, or as powerful, and they value that relative wealth and power more than absolute wealth and power.  It isn’t enough that they win, their own populations must be poor and weak, too.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Ellen Roseman writes about the need to recognize the value of public services - and to ensure that they're properly funded:
Canadians value their high-quality public services, such as education and health care. Many understand that public services democratize consumption and help tame the market forces leading to income inequality.

Yet they still fall prey to the false promises of politicians who say tax cuts won’t change anything and may even improve their lives. In the book, economist Hugh Mackenzie urges readers to think their way through the day, making a note of every time they use, consume or benefit from a public service.
(S)ince November is financial literacy month, I’m happy to see a concerted campaign to balance the debate and take taxes out of the closet to which they’ve been relegated.

In the future, we’ll need more public investment as we cope with an aging population, growing income inequality and the slow-moving crisis of climate change, says Mackenzie (the book’s liveliest commentator).

“We must have that adult conversation about the public services we need, and the taxes we’ll have to pay to provide them, and we must have it soon.”
- Meanwhile, PressProgress identifies several more Con attacks on the general public in legislation currently being considered by Parliament. And Scott Sinclair and Christine Saulnier comment on how CETA and other corporate privilege agreements will affect Nova Scotia (and other provinces).

- Gloria Galloway looks in detail at Nigel Wright's role in the Con's Senate bribery scandal. But Stephen Maher rightly notes that it's Stephen Harper who bore (or claimed) responsibility for appointing, hiring, directing and supervising every single person involved in the corruption - and questions whether Harper can possibly recover from the resulting stench.

- Finally, Linda Tirado discusses the burden poverty puts on every person who can't count on being able to meet basic needs - and how that burden leads to the decision-making usually used to justify bashing poor citizens even more.