Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Paul Krugman highlights why inequality is indeed an issue which demands action - both for its own sake, and for its impact on other goals such as economic sustainability. And Bill Moyers discusses the difference between a government responsive to its people and one completely controlled by elites:
The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate. "The abuse of buying and selling votes," he wrote of Rome, "crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, this process of corruption spread in the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors."
Why are record numbers of Americans on food stamps? Because record numbers of Americans are in poverty. Why are people falling through the cracks? Because there are cracks to fall through. It is simply astonishing that in this rich nation more than 21 million Americans are still in need of full-time work, many of them running out of jobless benefits, while our financial class pockets record profits, spends lavishly on campaigns to secure a political order that serves its own interests, and demands that our political class push for further austerity. Meanwhile, roughly 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty line and, with the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percent of kids in poverty than we do. Yet a study by scholars at Northwestern University and Vanderbilt finds little support among the wealthiest Americans for policy reforms to reduce income inequality.
I should make it clear that I don't harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy. Remember, I worked for Lyndon Johnson. Nor do I romanticize "the people." You should read my mail and posts on right-wing websites. I understand the politician in Texas who said of the state legislature, "If you think these guys are bad, you should see their constituents."

But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens (something otherwise known as social justice) and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud. That can be the difference between democracy and plutocracy.
 - Andrew Sullivan makes a similar point in commenting on the impact of Pope Francis' discussion of market zealotry (h/t to Cathie):
(T)he way in which market capitalism has become a good in itself on the American right is, well, perniciously wrong. As soon as a system ceases to be a means to a human good, and becomes an end in itself, it has become a false idol. Perhaps the apotheosis of that idol worship was the belief – brandished on the degenerate right in the past decade or two – that markets are self-regulating. Of course they’re not, as Adam Smith would have been the first to inform you. Another assumption embedded on the American right is that more wealth is always a good thing. The Church must say no. This is a lie. Wealth is a neutral thing above a certain basic level of non-drudgery. Above that, it can be an absolutely evil, deceptive thing, distorting human souls, warping their dignity, vulgarizing their character. An American right that worships at the altar of both free markets and material wealth, and that takes these two idols as their primary goods, is not just non-Catholic. It is anathema to Catholicism and to the Gospels.
- Michael Valpy writes about the connection between extractive economics, inequality and social exclusion - while observing that those exact factors are serving to reinforce each other in Canada.

- Meanwhile, Matthew Hays offers a devastating look at how Canada is beginning to look from abroad - with Rob Ford serving only as the most prominent example of a crude, selfish and thoughtless persona. And Scott Reid points out the systematic elimination of any sense of shame from right-wing politics as a substantial part of the problem.

- Finally, John Geddes writes that the Cons' patently absurd attacks on improvements to the Canada Pension Plan are making it needlessly difficult to discuss how to ensure retirement security for Canadians. And Tammy Schirle and Kevin Milligan offer their own proposal to bolster the CPP.

On status quo proposals

Shorter Doug Saunders:

I'm suspicious of the role of mere members in shaping party policy. And also of the role rogue MPs might play in shaping decision-making. In fact, what we need is a completely centralized system of government where the prime minister can implement his preferred policies on a whim without giving a damn what party members or MPs think. If only we could hope for such a distant ideal...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Musical interlude

Sloan - If It Feels Good Do It

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Bob Hepburn writes that more Canadians approve of the idea of a guaranteed annual income than oppose it - even as the concept is all too frequently dismissed as politically unpalatable. And Stuart Trew points out that a majority of Canadians disagree with the corporate super-rights contained in the CETA and other trade agreements.

- But of course, blind support for corporate interests and opposition to a reasonable standard of living for all are neatly clustered in the Cons' caucus among other places. And Carol Goar writes that Con MPs used a Parliamentary study of inequality as yet another platform to parrot Stephen Harper's anti-social talking points.

- Nick Fillmore's Tyee series on Canadian banks is well worth a read - particularly the latest installment discussing how the U.S. financial model (which is of course seeping across the border) gives priority to derivatives over the banking functions which actually serve some useful purpose for the real economy.

- pogge politely suggests that if CSEC's current Con-appointed watchdog sees his job as countering public reporting of surveillance activities (rather than investigating the accuracy of those reports), then maybe it's time for a real watchdog.

- Finally, Vanda Schmokel writes about the developing pattern of mid-winter apartment evictions in Regina. And the Evict Scrooge campaign is calling attention to both the plight of the residents losing their homes when they can least afford it, and the general lack of accessible rental housing.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Thomas Walkom points to Ontario's experience with Kellogg's as yet another example of the dangers of basing economic policy on blind faith that handouts to big business will benefit workers and the general public:
Like Kellogg, the auto companies justify their apparent double-dealing by citing the need to boost profits.

Indeed, in market terms, their actions are perfectly rational.

Why not take whatever you can from governments when subsidies are on offer? And why not stiff those same governments if, later on, you can make more by operating elsewhere?

For governments, however, open-ended corporate subsidies are not as rational.

From Massey-Ferguson to Kellogg, Ontario governments have sunk money into companies that either couldn’t or wouldn’t maintain employment in the province.

What are the alternatives? One is to do nothing and let the free market work its destructive magic. As Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is finding out, and as Stephen Harper has already discovered, this is politically untenable.

The other is to insist on having government, or even workers themselves, play a role in managing publicly subsidized companies.
- CUPW identifies what's at stake as the Cons encourage Canada Post to make its service less useful and more expensive, while Chantal Hebert points out that the government responsible is nowhere to be found in answering for the eliminate of door-to-door delivery and a massive price increase. And Alexandre Boulerice already has a petition in place to stop the service cuts.

- Kady O'Malley rightly criticizes the do-nothing fall session of Parliament - though it's worth pointing out which party both delayed the start of the session and held a majority which was wielded to stop nearly anything from getting done. And Alison singles out for shaming the Cons' Ethics Committee members who refused to allow an investigation into the Cons' Senate cover-up, and also went in camera to avoid any public committee votes on the issue.

- But of course, if we want a functional Parliament, it's probably incumbent on advocates for change to show they have some respect for the institution and its underlying purposes. Which means that Justin Trudeau's excuses that he'd rather be a full-time campaigner than an MP likely point in the wrong direction.

- Finally, Gloria Galloway reports on Don Drummond's conclusion that even equal funding won't be enough to allow First Nations schools to meet the standards expected by Canadians in general. But the real need for more should at least provide an impetus to move toward closing the gap which currently sees First Nations schools grossly underfunded (while federal and provincial governments point fingers at each other rather than doing anything to address the problem).

New column day

Here, on how Michael Chong's Reform Act privileges members of Parliament over party members and supporters - and how there's far more reason for concern about a lack of genuine grassroots input as matters stand now than about the influence of MPs.

For further reading...
- I'll point to Andrew Coyne passim as the main cheerleader for the Reform Act. I refer in the column to some of the points made by Alice Funke and Don Lenihan. And Aaron Wherry surveys a few more responses - including Jeff Jedras' proposal for a standardized primary system (which would seem to set up exactly the neutrally-administered party membership lists needed to support a membership-based review mechanism).
- And on the question of how our federal parties handle leadership reviews by membership, the NDP, Conservative and Liberal constitutions are available in PDF form. And while the former provides for a leadership review vote "(a)t every convention that is not a leadership convention" (section 3(a)(v)), the latter two each rule out any leadership reviews except after a general election (sections 10.7 and 71(1), respectively).

[Edit: added link.]

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jim Stanford reminds us that even Statistics Canada's already-galling numbers showing increased inequality in Canada understate the problem, as they fail to reflect capital gains (and the preferential tax treatment thereof):
Yesterday’s release from Statistics Canada on the income share of the wealthy generated some interesting coverage and commentary.  It reported that the top 1%’s share of total income in Canada remained steady in 2011 in Canada, at 10.6 percent — but still significantly higher than in the 1980s.

Most observers did not mention, however, that this oft-cited income share statistic does NOT include capital gains in the calculation of incomes and income shares.  A capital gain, of course, is a realized benefit resulting from the disposition of an asset (buy low, sell high … unless you are a short seller, in which case you should buy high and sell low!).
Wealthy people are not just wealthy.  They are the major owners and top managers of the profit-driven businesses which are the major driving force of our economy.  This gives them a power, and a vested interest, that goes beyond their claim to a vastly disproportionate share of incomes.  And in turn, that power helps to explain why THEIR incomes receive such favourable taxation treatment, and other government favours.
- Thomas McGarity writes that Barack Obama's much-needed discussion of inequality left out a crucial point about the need for regulation to rein in the excesses of the market.

- Les Whittington comments on the Cons' shredding of Canada's social safety net. And Thomas Walkom points out that the opposition parties - including the NDP in particular - should be making clear how to strengthen the safety net to account for a job market built around precarious employment.

- This week in accountability, Con MPs are publicly insisting that they should be able to get away with illegal activity simply by concealing the facts then running another election campaign. CBC follows up on tax avoidance by the chair of the Royal Canadian Mint (and close associate of Jim Flaherty) by revealing an agreement to hide the activity from the Canada Revenue Agency. And Kady O'Malley reports on a new form of lifetime confidentiality agreement being foisted on MPs' staff - with the NDP's staff union serving as the only group questioning the blanket of secrecy.

- Finally, Don Lenihan wonders what a greater level of speed and complexity in policy-making means for representative government. And Sean Holman writes that shifting a bit of nominal power toward MPs may not substantially improve the level of public involvement in politics:
(I)t’s conceivable party leaders would have to take better account of the views expressed by MPs during the private meetings where much the public’s business is discussed.

...(I)t’s conceivable MPs may be emboldened to publicly break ranks when they disagree with their party or its leader — confident their chances of being expelled from caucus or not being able to run for their party in the next election have been reduced.

But all this is predicated on the willingness of MPs to resist the rewards of conformity, the penalties for dissent and a culture of deference.

After all, being expelled from caucus or barred from a party candidacy are just two of many punishments that can be inflicted on rebellious MPs.

And party leaders will continue to be able to check that rebelliousness by holding forth the lure of political promotion.

As such, while I strongly support the intent of Chong’s bill, I worry that legislation may, at best, just entrench and empower the private debating clubs that are party caucuses — doing little to show Canadians that representation is being done.

And if representation isn’t seen to be done, how do we know it’s even taking place?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Contained cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- In the course of grading Canada's job market, Kayle Hatt traces the rise of precarious employment in both absolute and relative numbers - and notes that other countries haven't seen the same type of move toward temporary employment encouraged by the Cons. And in a similar vein, Duncan Cameron rightly brands the Cons as the "bad jobs party".

- Meanwhile, the lack of stability in any single job makes it all the more important to ensure that Canada's retirement system provides for security even among workers who have been pushed from employer to employer. And both the Globe and Mail and the Star Phoenix lend their support to the NDP's push to expand the CPP as the best way of reaching that goal - with the latter editorial nicely summing up the difference between public and private options:
There is another flaw in the pooled accounts plan. While the CPP has relatively low administration fees because of its size, the greater the number of pooled plans the more that is bled off in such fees. That puts less money in the hands of retirees and more money into the bonuses of wealthy bankers. The federal government's argument that increasing CPP premiums will cost jobs is predicated on the ideological belief that any tax discourages investment. In fact, keeping seniors out of poverty is more likely to create jobs than providing more tax breaks at a time when doing so is already threatening Canada's social union.
- And Amanda Lang surveys just a few examples of how the same markets which are praised as a means of mass wealth creation are in fact rigged to divert any gains toward the top.

- George Monbiot is the latest to discuss how excessive materialism leads to far less personal well-being:
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
I should emphasise that this is not about differences between rich and poor: the poor can be as susceptible to materialism as the rich. It is a general social affliction, visited upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and civic life, and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.

This is the dreadful mistake we are making: allowing ourselves to believe that having more money and more stuff enhances our wellbeing, a belief possessed not only by those poor deluded people in the pictures, but by almost every member of almost every government. Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.
- And finally, Michael Harris documents what he describes as Stephen Harper's annus horribilis. But while it would be a plus for less of the damage to be inflicted on Canada as a whole, we should ensure there are worse political times ahead for Harper and his party.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- David Simon laments the division of the U.S. into the few who are rewarded by market forces and the many who are constantly under siege - while also pointing out that concentration of wealth may prevent democratic forces from offering a counterweight:
The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It's a juvenile notion and it's still being argued in my country passionately and we're going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I'm astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?
So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody's going to get left behind. We're going to figure this out. We're going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We're either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we're going to keep going the way we're going, at which point there's going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody's going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there's always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I'm losing faith.
The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labour, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what's a good idea or what's not, or what's valued and what's not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained to Americans.

Right now capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process.

So I don't know what we do if we can't actually control the representative government that we claim will manifest the popular will. Even if we all start having the same sentiments that I'm arguing for now, I'm not sure we can effect them any more in the same way that we could at the rise of the Great Depression, so maybe it will be the brick. But I hope not.
 - Meanwhile, the Star provides both an article and an infographic on the public services slashed by the Harper Cons.

- And Bill Hatanaka, Jim Keohane, Jim Leech and Michael Nobrega highlight the value of defined-benefit pensions as a means of ensuring a secure retirement for workers. (And Konrad Yakabuski's apparent preference for letting individuals rather than social pension plans address the consequences of a "declining real rates of return on pension investments" doesn't serve as much of an argument against stronger public pensions.)

- Finally, Susan Delacourt proposes a few fixes to the current rules (or lack thereof) governing political and government advertising:
What could we do right now? Three steps are available to us, each as easy to embrace as Chong’s reforms:

- We need to have a conversation about whether we should continue to allow political advertising in between elections.
- If we’re stuck with advertising between elections, it seems we’re recognizing that political parties are just another consumer marketer. How about subjecting them to the same standards?
- Speaking of disparaging firms and commercial activity, how about those new ads this fall from your federal government, taking a poke at the wireless and telecom providers? We learned this week that the Conservative government is spending $9 million on its new ad campaign against Canadian cellphone providers. “More Choice. Better Service. Lower Prices,” the ads state, as though the government was the chief competitor, not the regulator, of a wireless industry that employs hundreds of thousands.

The federal government has since 2006 spent an estimated half-billion dollars or more on advertising, including $100 million on those ever-present Economic Action Plan ads.
Is this political advertising? Or, as the government claims, simply money spent to “inform” Canadians?
Ontario solved this problem almost a decade ago when it passed a law requiring the Auditor-General to review all government ads for political content. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Grant Gordon rightly criticizes the "taxpayer" frame in discussing how public policy affects citizens:
(T)here's a difference between being smart with our money and just being cheap.

Conservatives are fond of saying they wish government ran more like a business. Well, sometimes it's better business to invest in R&D, in new technology, in a new employee. You can't cut your way to success in business, and the same is true in government.

Our government needs to invest in transit and education. It's the best way to stay competitive.
It's dangerous to reduce my citizenship to a shopping trip, where I only fork out cash for things I personally benefit from. That's not how a society works. We build society through give and take, doing what is in the public interest.

Now, I get the branding genius of calling everyone "taxpayers": it means we focus on how much we pay in taxes, and for the right-wing politician, keeping the focus on taxes rather than services is the perfect linguistic Trojan horse to advance their narrow-minded fatwa against government itself.

But progressives have a responsibility to fight back. It's our job to tell the truth about taxes. It's our job to be responsible grownups, not cheapskates. And "taxpayers" creates a culture of resentment, not responsibility.

So please, don't call me a taxpayer.

I am more than my wallet.

So are you.
- Meanwhile, Andre Picard offers up a prime example of how corporate greed is driving up drug costs - as manufacturer manipulations are limiting the use of a $7 drug to combat vision loss when it prefers to sell more of a $1,575 version instead. Which, in addition to being outrageous in and of itself, should thoroughly discredit any claim that there's any value to private "research-based" manufacturing - since that "research" is exclusively oriented toward extracting as much profit as possible, rather than making more efficient products available for patients.

- PressProgress takes a look at the Cons' track record on jobs - featuring plenty of low-paying, insecure work, but no gains at all in more stable employment.

- Which offers all the more reason to doubt the Cons have the public interest in mind when they short-circuit mitigation talks and approve a new tar sands project which will cause severe and irreversible environmental damage.

- Finally, Don Lenihan questions whether commentators calling for a return to past models of the role of an MP are missing inevitable changes in that role:
Parliamentary committees could play a very significant role in the evolution of policymaking. They could provide oversight, analysis and advice in the development of both strategies and the new processes that will produce them. They could ensure these processes are transparent, accountable, inclusive and evidence-based. They could also explore how social media tools could be used to create new opportunities for large-scale engagement, especially where communities and citizens are involved.

Nevertheless, if MPs could do much good work here this is not about representing their constituents’ policy views to Ottawa. Rather, in this model, the public’s views on major issues increasingly will be gathered and discussed through the processes, not from their MPs.