Saturday, December 07, 2013

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Jim Stanford counters the myth of labour shortages by pointing out Canada's significant - and growing - number of potential workers who lack a job. And Janet French reports on how PCS' job cuts have affected both the workers who were laid off, and the communities who depend on their spending to support local economies.

- CPJ's infographic makes the case for a guaranteed livable income in Canada:

- CBC reports on the misleading statistics underlying claims that there's no need to discuss rail safety in Canada - featuring cases of runaway trains which are never classified or reported as such.

- Finally, Alison points out the Cons' consistent expectation that Stephen Harper's appointed Senators will do nothing but the bidding of the PMO - which of course has been fully met in practice. And the escalating attacks on elected NDP MPs by the Cons' patronage appointees seeking to preserve their own unaccountable sinecures only look to confirm the fundamental corruption underlying the Senate as an institution.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Musical interlude

Protoculture - Cobalt

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Hassan Arif theorizes that a failure to identify and address growing inequality may have played a significant role in the rise of Rob Ford's destructive anti-socialism:
The Toronto of towering new condos, of downtown coffee shops and trendy restaurants and stores, is far removed from the Toronto of these low-income, suburban, and largely visible minority residents. A “plain-talking” politician who rails against downtown elites, against “slick talking lawyers”, “consultants”, and recipients of “research grants” appeals to those who feel left behind.
These concerns, about suburban alienation, about inequality, are concerns that need to be seriously addressed in Toronto. While Rob Ford has not concretely tackled the issues concerning the inner-suburban poor, he has politically benefitted from their discontent.
Toronto ultimately needs a public discourse – and public officials including a new mayor – focussed on seriously addressing the concerns of poverty and alienation in the inner-suburbs while also prioritizing the economic development and growth of an emerging global city. Prosperity is important, but it must benefit everyone. Ultimately, the focus must be on governing for all of Toronto, not neglecting parts of it, or – worse yet – pitting different elements against each other.
- Meanwhile, Alan Broadbent takes the position that the solution to inequality revolves entirely around slightly improved conditions for the poor - and has some positive suggestions on that front, including echoing Jim Stanford's take on the importance of unions. But David Atkins rightly points out that a truly effective policy will need to properly balance the relative social influence of the poor, the middle class and the wealthy. And Nafeez Ahmed describes the type of widespread, private-sector surveillance and control that develops when too much wealth gets clustered in the hands of too few corporate elites.

- Laurie Monsbraaten reports on the Ontario Libs' planned legislation to protect workers facing precarious employment. But while the plan looks like a positive move, it remains to be seen how much effort is put into enforcing the law - assuming it gets passed in the first place.

- Tim Harper writes that the refusal of Senate Cons to hear from auditors who were instructed to change their review of questioned expenses reflects a scandal playing out in broad daylight. Rod Love thinks the Cons' biggest problem is that they could have gone to greater lengths to cover up their bribery and corruption. And Michael Harris counters by arguing that Stephen Harper should step down.

- Finally, the Star-Phoenix' editorial board rightly slams the Wall government for budget practices which have become so shady as to have drawn an adverse opinion from the provincial auditor.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

New column day

Here, asking whether growth and stable employment are part of the deal when the Saskatchewan Party offers massive handouts to the resource sector - and if so, how to handle the fact that PCS is pocketing tax incentives while slashing jobs.

For further reading...
- The Wall government's own press release touting its potash giveaways is here. Needless to say, there's no mention as to why we'd want to keep giving royalties away if they're not linked to growth.
- Simon Enoch's list of Saskatchewan Party corporate subsidies is always worth a look.
- Murray Mandryk is duly skeptical of the Wall government's talking points.
- And finally, both the Saskatchewan and New Brunswick NDP weigh in on the effect of PCS' cuts.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Andrew Jackson writes that Canada needs far more investment in infrastructure - rather than the austerity that's constantly being prescribed by the Cons:
The fiscal policy choice we face is often miscast as one between austerity to deal with public debt and short-term Keynesian-style stimulus. But the real choice, Mr. Summers argues, is whether or not to finance public investments that would have positive long-term impacts on both the economy and on public finances.

Take the case for repairing or replacing Canada’s crumbling basic municipal infrastructure, some 30 per cent of which is reported by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) to be in “fair” or “poor” condition. The problem was dramatically highlighted by the need for emergency repairs to Canada’s busiest bridge in Montreal last week, part of a costly and highly disruptive maintenance program for the Champlain Bridge that will be needed to patch things up until a long-postponed new bridge is built.

While the last federal budget renewed the Building Canada Fund for another 10 years, there was no increase in modest federal funding for basic municipal infrastructure. And the Parliamentary Budget Office reports that a significant share of the $10-billion of “lapsed” federal spending last year came from lower-than-projected infrastructure investments.

Underinvestment in infrastructure to meet an arbitrary short-term deficit reduction target makes absolutely no economic sense. As the FCM argues, it is more costly to postpone needed repair and renewal of infrastructure, especially in a slack economy when the work can be done relatively cheaply and can be financed at near-record-low interest rates.
In a stagnant economy, one marked by low levels of private investment despite near-zero interest rates, the best way to boost growth and job creation is through increased public investment. The case for public-investment-led growth is particularly compelling when such investments have a high rate of return, and thus reduce public debt as a share of the economy in the long term.
- And Erin Weir comments on the complete disconnect between corporate tax giveaways and productive investment in discussing Progressive Economics Forum's presentation to the Finance Committee:
Investment is now well below after-tax profits, which is especially notable considering that “investment” includes outlays to cover depreciation but “profits” are net of depreciation. Comparisons of investment and corporate cash flow (including depreciation) indicate a much larger imbalance.

Statistics Canada’s definition of “corporations” includes Crown corporations, which are generally not subject to corporate tax. Investment by Crown corporations is quite small relative to national GDP, but has grown rapidly over the past decade (as provincial electrical utilities, for example, have had to refurbish aging infrastructure). An untold story of the Great Recession is the stabilizing effect of Crown corporations on the Canadian economy.

When Crown corporations are factored out, the story gets worse. The private corporations that gained from corporate tax cuts have actually reduced their investment as a share of Canada’s economy.
- Karl Nerenberg reports on the Auditor General's findings which show that emergency response services - like far too many essential public goods - are woefully lacking among Canada's First Nations.

- Geoff Dembicki discusses the inefficiency involved in Alberta and Saskatchewan's high-greenhouse-gas-emission economies, while CBC reports on the Cons' non-committal response to even minimal recommendations to protect Canada's coasts from tanker traffic. Tzeporah Berman highlights the desperate need for the public to be able to comment on developments which may severely damage Canada's environment. And CBC also reports on the NDP's new energy plan - featuring a focus on meaningful environmental assessments at the federal level along with greater cooperation with provinces and First Nations.

- Finally, David Dayen suggests that as long as there's no prospect of prosecuting anybody for financial fraud, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission reviewing the global financial system might be the best way to gather the information policymakers need to prevent another economic meltdown.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cat naps.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- George Monbiot comments on the dangerous effect of agreements which place investors' interests above those of governments and citizens:
From the outset, the transatlantic partnership has been driven by corporations and their lobby groups, who boast of being able to "co-write" it. Persistent digging by the Corporate Europe Observatory reveals that the commission has held eight meetings on the issue with civil society groups, and 119 with corporations and their lobbyists. Unlike the civil society meetings, these have taken place behind closed doors and have not been disclosed online.

Though the commission now tells the public that it will protect "the state's right to regulate", this isn't the message the corporations have been hearing. In an interview last week, Stuart Eizenstat, co-chair of the Transatlantic Business Council – instrumental in driving the process – was asked if companies whose products had been banned by regulators would be able to sue. Yes. "If a suit like that was brought and was successful, it would mean that the country banning the product would have to pay compensation to the industry involved or let the product in." Would that apply to the European ban on chicken carcasses washed with chlorine, a controversial practice permitted in the US? "That's one example where it might."

What the commission and its member governments fail to explain is why we need offshore arbitration at all. It insists that domestic courts "might be biased or lack independence", but which courts is it talking about? It won't say. Last month, while trying to defend the treaty, the British minister Kenneth Clarke said something revealing: "Investor protection is a standard part of free-trade agreements – it was designed to support businesses investing in countries where the rule of law is unpredictable, to say the least." So what is it doing in an EU-US deal? Why are we using measures designed to protect corporate interests in failed states in countries with a functioning judicial system? Perhaps it's because functioning courts are less useful to corporations than opaque and unjust arbitration by corporate lawyers.

As for the commission's claim that the trade deal will produce growth and jobs, this is also likely to be false. Barack Obama promised that the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement would increase US exports by $10bn. They immediately fell by $3.5bn. The 70,000 jobs it would deliver? Er, 40,000 were lost. Bill Clinton promised that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create 200,000 new jobs for the US; 680,000 went down the pan. As the commentator Glyn Moody says: "The benefits are slight and illusory, while the risks are very real."
- Frances Russell and Chantal Hebert bite on the claim that entrenched caucus review processes are the only alternative to top-down leader control - and that they reflect a meaningful change from the power already held by individual representatives. But Alice Funke is on the mark in pointing out that caucuses already have plenty of influence:
A commentariat gravely worried about party group-think has shown itself all-too-ironically-susceptible to the very same affliction, as one columnist after another trips over himself or herself to jump in front of the parade.

Things have deteriorated so badly in the last two days that I’ve been told it really doesn’t matter what’s actually in the bill, because in politics everything is appearances, and people have to be seen to be lining up behind democracy.

But it does matter what’s in a piece of legislation that seeks to amend the Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act, and we do need to debate it at length. What’s really wrong with our democratic system is that this is almost never done anymore. We’re all about Omnibus budget bills and Twitter fights being storify’ed now. Neither is a very good way to make laws. And the only way to change that is to say “stop”.
(T)he Bill would formalize in legislation a party caucus’ ability to call for and effect a leadership review. I say formalize, because there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.
So, it’s not that a caucus CAN’T call for a leadership review or push a leader out, it’s that they apparently won’t, and/or they don’t. I fail to see how enacting legislation formalizing this authority gives them any more actual power to do so, or makes them any more accountable back home for not showing some backbone.
And I'd add that the arbitrary review levels set out in Chong's bill might only strengthen a leader's hand in some cases. For the moment, pointed questioning from a few representatives on a particular issue might be enough to create a meaningful story. But a formal mechanism would allow leaders to punt on answering questions by saying they're answerable to nobody until the 15% standard is met - making any story into a process of speculation as to whether the dissidents will reach the review threshold, rather than a discussion of the issue.

- Oliver Burkeman discusses the relationship between consumerism, materialism and social isolation:
All this provides an interesting counterbalance to the interminable debate about whether or not there's a threshold of personal income, or per capita GDP, above which more money stops making us happier. Research on both sides of this question gets reported all the time, often accompanied by commentary suggesting it's the final word on the matter. But these investigations of materialist attitudes point to an important clarification: how much money you have and the attitude you take towards it are two different things.

It may well be that having more money would make some or even most of us happier. Undoubtedly, there are millions of people on the planet who'd be happier if they had more money. But at the same time, most of us might well be happier if we could learn to value money – and, specifically, the material stuff it can buy – a little less.
- Trish Hennessy offers up her year in review - featuring plenty of stories which didn't get the attention they deserved in 2013. And Alex Boutillier reports on another trend which fits the bill, as the Cons' attacks on public-sector pay are again being paired with massive increases in spending on outside contractors.

- Finally, John Lorinc's commentary about the state of the union movement in Canada is well worth a read.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Nick Cohen writes that the corporate sector is home to some of the most dangerous cult philosophy in the world:
(T)he language of business has become ever more cultish. In the theory of "transformational leadership", which dominates the business schools, the CEO is a miracle worker. In Transformational Leadership, by Bernard Bass and Ronald Riggio, he is described, not by some gullible Forbes hack, but by two supposedly intelligent American academics. The transformational leader "inspires" his follower to "achieve extraordinary outcomes", they say. He "empowers them" to "exceed expected performance" and show ever greater "commitment to the organisation".

I don't see why anyone should find the comparison with fanatics so hard to accept and not only because the idea that CEOs can manufacture new and better subordinates matches Trotsky's belief that the revolution would create a "new man who raises himself to a new plane".

The nearest you are likely to come to experiencing life in a dictatorship is at work. Unless you are fortunate, you will discover that the management is the source of all ideas and all power. Executives will have privileges that bear no more relation to real achievement than the fat and ugly cult leader's expectation of sex. In 2012, the median pay for CEOs in the USA was $14.4m, the average salary for employees $45,230. In Britain, the High Pay Commission found that the average annual bonus for FTSE 300 directors had increased by 187% in 10 years even though the average year-end share price had gone down by 71%.

Above all, whether you are in the public or the private sector, John Lewis or Barclays Bank, you will learn that if you challenge authority you will lose the chance of promotion and if you challenge it in public, you will lose your job. To prosper in the workplace, as in the dictatorship, you must tell leaders what they want to hear.
- Meanwhile, Paul Krugman calls for reasonable wages - including a livable minimum wage - to ensure that workers aren't at the mercy of the worst corporate leadership. And Digby explains why big business is working to bury the very idea of public service:
They must have a reason for their dedication to austerity. And that reason is simple greed: the government is competing with them for "insurance" dollars. They are rent seekers and every time the government provides a service efficiently and at lower cost, it takes the provision of that "service" away from a private entity that could make a profit at it. All the propaganda about government being the problem and the private sector being the solution is in service of creating wealth for the rent-seekers. Obviously.
(T)here is a great deal of money to be skimmed by financial wizards and insurance company share-holders from health and pension programs. Everybody needs them. They've already managed to grab hold of virtually all the private pension management in this country and all that's left is Social Security. By starving it of funds, they hope to force more and more people to put money into market based schemes from which they can siphon off even more profit. They see every penny the government extracts for the common good as stealing from them their rightful share.   
- Michael Harris criticizes the Cons' full devotion of Canadian diplomacy to the service of our corporate overlords. The Council of Canadians notes that a strong majority of Canadians disagree with the elimination of buy-local policies in the Cons' CETA sell-out. And Erin Weir points out how the Wall government has given away tens of millions of dollars in uranium royalties without any discernible benefit to anybody besides Cameco.

- Mike de Souza reports that Joe Oliver has been aware of uncontrolled and unexplained leaks at the CNRL Primrose tar sands site since this summer - and hasn't missed a beat in denying any knowledge of risks associated with oil development of any kind. Which means that we now have our water source for the Tar Sands Taste Test Challenge - just as soon as somebody other than an oil executive is allowed in the same room as Oliver.

- And the Globe and Mail confirms that the Lac-Mégantic derailment and explosion can be traced in large part to a complete lack of regulation of oil shipment by rail, together with decreasing enforcement of existing rail regulations.

- Finally, Tim Harper wonders whether the last week's developments in the Senate scandal will produce the bumper-sticker messages which spell the end for the Cons' stay in power.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

Miscellanous material for your Sunday reading.

- Sean McElwee highlights the fact that inequality is an avoidable result caused by policies oriented toward rewarding greed:
The problem, then, is not machines, which are doing a great deal to boost productivity; the problem is that the benefits from increased productivity no longer accrue to workers. In a provocative paper earlier this year, Josh Bivens and Mishel argued that the gains for the richest 1 percent were due to “rent-seeking” behavior by CEOs and financial professions, not competitive markets. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The sense of responsibility in the financial community for the community as a whole is not small. It is nearly nil.” The newly minted rich want to blame robots for declining wages at the bottom and their innate superiority for their disproportionate share of the income. But these excuses mask their theft of productivity gains that rightfully belong to the rest of us.
If inequality were the result of economic fundamentals, it would not matter who was in the White House, but rather inequality would be correlated to underlying economic trends. This is not true either. Larry Bartels finds in “Unequal Democracy” that income growth is more equal under Democratic presidents than it is under Republican presidents, pointing to the possibility that political systems drive inequality.
Workers must exercise political power to change the institutions that shape their lives. Walmart doesn’t have to pay its workers starvation wages and could easily pay them more. There is no celestial law that the richest 1% can plunder our common inheritance. We don’t have to crush workers when we globalize and we don’t have to destroy the environment in the pursuit of profits. Just as inequality is a choice, equality is a choice. By shifting the discussion away from the policy changes that have caused inequality, we legitimate it. As Eugene Debs said, “the class which has the power to rob upon a large scale has also the power to control the government and legalize their robbery.”
- And Martin Regg Cohn theorizes that Ontario may soon be home to a far more pointed challenge to the forces pushing inequality - as the Hudak PCs' attacks on workers are being met with a united front.

- Meanwhile, Eve-Lyne Couturier reminds us how we all end up paying the price for abusive employers. Josh Eidelson reports on Wal-Mart's state-aided retaliation against workers and other involved in peaceful protests. And Lauren McCauley writes about the widespread collection of personal information about consumers by Wal-Mart and other retailers.

- John Greenwood takes a look at the focus of the Canada Revenue Agency - and finds it trumpeting successful collections arising out of minor non-compliance rather than doing anything to meaningfully challenge systemic tax evasion by those who owe the most.

- Finally, Lana Payne comments on how the Cons' fear of losing power led to the corruption of Stephen Harper and his PMO.